Raising a Bilingual Child

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It happens a lot that you encounter young children speaking a foreign language with one of their parents and talking in Arabic or another language to their friends or grandparents.  How could children at that age master more than one language?  Is it really beneficial to expose a child to several languages or would that confuse him/her and lessen the knowledge of his / her mother-tongue language?  Shahira Abou Hussein, manager and first teacher at one of the most prominent German nurseries in Cairo with nine years of experience in dealing with bilingual children, sheds light on this issue.

 

Shahira begins by defining bilingualism.  Contrary to what many people think, bilingualism is not necessarily being brought up in a bilingual family, where one of the parents has a different nationality and hence speaks another language.  It is the fact of being exposed to any two languages at an early age.  This also encompasses the spoken dialect and its formal language.  “The opinions expressed in research studies vary in how advantageous it is to raise bilingual children, as speech and language development are usually slower than it is the case with monolingual children.  However,  it is definitely clear that bilingualism has a lot of benefits”, says Shahira. 

  • Language is the expression of thoughts and ideas representing nations and societies. “ It’s knowing a culture and feeling a culture”, she explains.  This is usually a plus for people who work in multinational organizations or who work in foreign countries.  Knowing the language makes you know the people and the culture relating to them.
  • The cognition of the child is much richer and vaster as each language makes the child think in its terms.  There was a study conducted on an Australian Aboriginal and a Dutch group, where each group was introduced to a set of puppets, a cow and a man, placed in a certain way.  Then, they were asked to replicate the positions of the puppets.  The Australians put the puppets according to the compass direction of South and East, while the Dutch placed them according to their body direction with respect to right and left.  The way they placed them was according to the preposition views in their language.  This proves how language shapes thought and cognition.  The German language , for example, is very rich, detailed and specific.  The fork, as an example, has a different name according to its use.  It’s sometimes “Gabel”, “Heugabel”, “Harke” in addition to a lot of other names.  Due to this specificity, the Germans are detailed and specific, and hence, are engineers and produce lots of machinery.  The same goes for the prepositions.  You can find several prepositions for the word table or “Tisch” such as “an, auf, ueber, unter” (at, on, above and under).
  • Speaking more than one language makes you get exposed to other concepts or consideration foreign to our way of living such as the idea of snow and cold winter, which would in turn reflect on the people’s way of living.  It also provides another scope and frame of reference leading to a more critical look at things, and hence tolerance.
  • When learning a language the right way at a very early age, children grow with it and master it properly.  Pronunciation and wording can become like native speakers which in turn opens many doors. This leads to better job opportunities, especially when working abroad.
  • Moreover, it helps the child and later on the adult get accustomed to living in a foreign country if necessary.
  • Bilingualism presents a huge door to knowledge and culture.  In case of conducting research or doing masters, people can easily have access to articles, websites and books written in another language.  Thus, doing research on a world level leads to more knowledge.

 

Shahira continues emphasizing the importance of bilingualism saying that we have millions of cells in our brain and we use only 10% of them.  When we learn more, these cells get activated and connected, and hence they do not die.  Therefore, there is no limitation to what you can teach a child.  “You can teach children anything, even chemistry and physics at an early age.  We taught them how shadow results. To better grasp the idea, we produced a shadow theater.  This is a pure physics lesson.”  This underlines the importance of training of mind and observation at this early age.  The fact that the German education system delays reading and writing until first grade gives the child more room for creativity and training of mind.  When you start introducing reading and writing, children become more focused and have less time to learn and observe their surroundings.  The same goes for language.  If at an early stage you teach a child “cat, otta and Katze” along with the verbs and articles associated with those words, then you activate more brain cells and cell connections than when you teach him/her only “otta”. Moreover, the older the children get, the less time they have.  When you start introducing another language at 4th or 5th grade, the children learn it more by getting vocabulary lists and grammar rules, whereas if you start out early, children tend to learn it naturally and indirectly just by being spoken to.

 

Language has a psychological aspect as well.  The more it is used in a family, the more the child is encouraged to learn it.  If it is spoken at home, then it will be easier for him / her to grasp it at school.  However, if the language is not spoken at home, parents should still encourage their children by showing them their interest in this new language.  As an example, they can ask the children to tell them what they have been taking at school, what the story at school was about  or what a certain word means in the new language, giving the child the opportunity to play the role of the teacher, which raises the child’s interest in the language.  The best results are obtained when there is consistency in using the language.  If one parent speaks to the child in Arabic, then he l she should always do so, not sometimes in English, German or French and at other times in Arabic.  Thus, the child will strongly learn the language from its roots and will not get confused which language and vocabulary he/she should resort to.  Therefore, if both languages are used at home, each parent should use one language exclusively.  “The problem that we often face at the kindergarten is the effect of foreign nannies being responsible for the child.  The children come to us with bad Arabic, bad English and need to be taught German.”, points out Shahira. “The pronunciation is horrible, the grammar and sentence structure are almost non-existent.”

 

Knowledge is usually transferred from one language to the other, meaning if you strengthen one language the other gets automatically better.  Vocabulary, grammar and structure knowledge will benefit the process of learning the second language, especially if those languages share certain similarities.  Hence, the more you give a good base or infrastructure, the better the children master both languages.  Shahira uses the articles in the different languages to exemplify this.  In French, the articles are ‘un’ and ‘une’.  In German, you have three ‘der’, ‘die’, ‘das’.  In Arabic, you have only ‘al’, but you have different conjugations according to feminine and masculine or ‘mothanna’ (the concept of two).  If the child understands the concept of articles in one language, then it will be easier for him to grasp the concept of articles in another language.  He/she would be able to distinguish the articles in each language. Understanding that ‘die Sonne’ is ‘le soleil’ is ‘the sun’ is ‘al shams’, would reflect on his ideas and thoughts, which leads to a richer and wider cognition.  Therefore, the complexity of the German and Arabic grammar, for example, makes children become more specific.  Therefore, the reputation of schools teaching multi-languages is mostly a good one not only because of the way they raise the child, but also due to the diversity of languages, which in turn provides their graduates with precision and attention to minute details.

 

Speech and language development usually take more time to develop in case of bilingual children.  However, those children soon pick up and master both languages, unless there is a language or speech difficulty or disability. “ This is logical, because the children have to first store and grasp double the amount of everything: vocabulary, grammar and structure.  Instead of learning 500 words, they learn 1000, for example.  This is why they need more time to stabilize in the languages they are exposed to.”, explains Shahira.  She also advises parents to read to their children in any language, as this tremendously affects concentration in all other fields, strengthens the languages and raises the children’s interest in books as well.

 

Parents should understand that bilingual children often have one language more dominating than the other according to their surroundings and activities.  If the first language at school is German, then the child’s dominating language would be German.  He/she would find it easier to express himself / herself in this language. If he / she then goes to university, where English is the main language, then the dominating language would shift to English.  In all cases, the other language soon will pick up when changing the language of focus depending on the type or focus of activity.  Most importantly, the knowledge and the ability to speak and express thoughts and ideas in this language are present.  People learn through language how to think in its terms, not just translate to another language.

 

Most political, religious, sociological and economic misunderstandings between and within nations are attributed to not knowing the language.  Shahira recites the example of a Chinese group inviting a Middle Eastern one.  The Middle Eastern people believe that you should eat everything that is being put on your plate, while the Chinese think that if you finish your plate, then it is a request for another serving.  The Middle Eastern kept finishing their plates, and the Chinese kept refilling, leading to the Middle Eastern group’s getting sick.  Books dealing with international business also provide a lot of real-life examples stressing the importance of knowing the language and the culture when doing business abroad.  The car “Nova” did not sell in South America, where Spanish is the national language, as in Spanish “no va” meant that the car didn’t go!  An American company once exported a product to Japan in a white packaging.  The product did not sell, as white is supposed to be the color of mourning there. Colors are interpreted differently in various cultures.  Therefore, knowing the language is a door to tolerating and knowing other cultures.  Accordingly, bilingualism is not only beneficial on the personal level, but also on the national and international levels.

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